The Watcher review

Friday, September 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It's never a wise film-going habit to expect understatement from a serial killer movie.
But The Watcher, this week's entry in the serial-killer genre, is relatively restrained. While not exactly shy on gore, it emphasizes psychological tension rather than bloodlust, and it lacks the utter pretentiousness of The Cell. The result is a minor, but watchable, melodrama.

Directed by Joe Charbanic with only a few obvious traces of his music video background, the film pairs the ever-twitchy James Spader with the slyly insinuating Keanu Reeves. The two might have changed roles easily, but this time, Mr. Spader is the protagonist and Mr. Reeves, the nastiest of villains. Mr. Spader plays an edgy policeman who was tormented by his inability to capture serial killer Reeves in Los Angeles.

After a nervous breakdown, Mr. Spader relocates to Chicago, only to be followed by the evildoer. Mr. Reeves now embarks on a new cat-and-mouse game, mailing the recovering Spader a photo of his intended victim and allowing him 24 hours to find and save the targeted woman before her slaughter. For the miscreant, the chase is as exciting as the kill, and the link between criminal and law enforcer has ominous undercurrents.

Although following a formulaic plot, the movie takes some unexpected detours, and several of the storyline's incidentals are intriguing. Director Charbanic captures a solid feel of urban life although the movie overemphasizes the impersonal touches of a concrete urban jungle. Sadly, the preposterous ending threatens to sabotage the movie's more admirable traits.

The viewer can project a variety of extremely unpleasant readings into Mr. Reeves' naturally bland countenance. But the actor cunningly adds an eerie grin to his facial scheme. It's a real "killer smile." Mr. Spader, looking gaunter than usual, is completely credible at over-the-top edginess.

Onetime Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei, who threatened to become a candidate for a "whatever-happened-to?" game, is seen as Mr. Spader's friendly psychologist. Although her dialogue is pop-psych patter, she says it earnestly. Chris Ellis makes the most of the foolproof role of a right folksy detective.

The Watcher falls neatly into the you've-seen-worse category. If your week is not compete without serial-killing entertainment, this will definitely suffice.

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